Sunday, May 13, 2007

To my Mom on Mother's Day

My mom is one of the best people in the world to spend time with. She's really pretty, she always smells good (I just found out that she likes Coco Mademoiselle too, and actually has a bottle and I wonder if it is a moral failure to sneak into one's mother's bathroom to snitch little dabs of perfume) and she's very funny and interesting.

My mom is actually not all that much older than I am. I mean, she is a respectable amount of years beyond my own -- I don't want anyone to have the idea that she was dragged to the church bawling with a baby doll tucked under her arm and a lollipop stuck in one pigtail -- but she was only twenty when she had me, her oldest child. She had, let's see....just completed her sophomore year at Ball State University, majoring in elementary education.

My mom has always been a little bit silly, which is one of the things that makes her so much fun to be around. My father, Poppy, told me that when they went on their honeymoon to the family's cottage at Wall Lake in northern Indiana, they were out on the lake in a rowboat. Or maybe she was on a float or something like that. The details are sketchy.

But anyway, she fell off of whatever she was on: boat, raft, who knows; into the drink she went, where she squealed and flailed and splashed about frantically, shrieking, "Bobby! Bobby! Save me!"

My father, who was apparently on the pier, bent double with laughter (he was only twenty and was not used to being a husband yet or he never would have been so foolish), didn't answer. He couldn't.

"He-e-e-l-l-l-l-l-l-p-p-p-p meeeeee!!!!" she screamed, spluttering and floundering.

My father staggered around, unable to speak, wiping tears from his eyes.

"I'm dr-o-o-o-w-w-w-w-n-n-n-ing...." she cried.

Finally, my father found his voice. "Linda," he called across the water. "STAND UP!"

The water was only about waist deep, but how's a girl to know that? It would require putting her feet on the mucky lake bottom and eewwww!!! Who wants to do that?

My mother and I became acquainted through something known as the Rhythm Method.

On my mother's wedding day, my grandma attempted to speak to my mom about the Facts of Life, but my mother, like many a silly girl before her, insisted that she already knew everything she needed to know, probably just to avoid an embarrassing discussion while wearing stays and a formal gown. Embarrassing discussions are bad enough without the corset.

At any rate, my mother didn't know as much as she thought she did (this wasn't readily available until 1971) and consequently, I am what's known as a Honeymoon Baby. My parents were married on September 1, 1962 and I was born on June 29, 1963 and if you think I haven't had people counting on their fingers for my entire life as they attempt to process this information, well, think again.

When my mother went into labor, my father took her to Ball Memorial Hospital (the same place where he was born) where she spent the several hours of fairly easy labor wailing like a banshee. Finally, she said, a nurse with a furious scowl on her face poked her head in the room and said, "Will you please be quiet? You are upsetting everyone on this entire floor."

I was born after only about four hours of labor, back in those lovely days of Twilight Sleep; a blonde, complacent and really very beautiful baby. The nursery nurse said I looked like Jayne Mansfield, only I hope without the false eyelashes. I'm not sure what happened. Shut up.

Me as a newborn. No, wait....that's Jayne Mansfield.
It's hard to tell the difference.

Anyway, my mother and I kind of grew up together. She got her Master's degree while I learned to read and jump rope. She did cartwheels on the front lawn and drove me to nursery school. She betrayed me utterly by presenting me with a baby brother when I was six, but he turned out not to be so bad, maturing like a fine wine and growing better -- much better -- with age.

We went through some rocky years together when I was a teenager, although she fondly told me just the other day that I wasn't as bad as I remembered myself.

One time, we were in a terrible, terrible argument together, standing nose to nose and screaming at the tops of our lungs. Neither one of us can remember what this was about now, and now this makes us laugh, but at the time, oh my goodness. Poppy kept coming to the kitchen where this smackdown was taking place and saying, "Now, girls. Now, GIRLS..." but we were much too involved in our shouting match to pay attention.

Finally, I must have said something just marvelously smart-mouthed because she slapped my face. As quick as lightning, I slapped her back and the next thing I knew, I was pinned against the kitchen wall by my shoulders, my feet dangling helplessly a couple of inches above the floor. She put her face very, very close to mine and breathed in a quiet, deadly voice, every inch of her taut and quivering, like a cobra getting ready to strike. "Do not ever. Raise your hand. To your mother. Again."

"Okay!" I responded, wide-eyed, and she let me go and the next minute, we were both laughing and crying and hugging each other and saying we were sorry, we were very, very sorry. My poor dad probably went to hide behind a newspaper, or perhaps to arm himself with a sturdy golf club.

(It isn't strictly true about my feet dangling above the floor, but that's what it felt like.)

Our relationship evened out when I was in my early twenties, and once when I was teaching in northern Indiana and was felled by the flu, she took some personal days from her own teaching job and drove up to take care of me. That was one of the best four-day periods of my whole life, sitting in my apartment, watching the stack of videos she had brought from home (we watched Jimmy Stewart in Shenandoah and both cried buckets). Every now and then, we'd think of something that sounded good to eat and she'd go out and reconnoiter at the grocery store down the street, bringing back bags and bags of food and Ny-Quil.

Later on, when I had babies, she took more personal days to come and stay with me. Meelyn was born in April and my mom came every day for a week, arriving in the mornings just as my husband left for work and staying with me until he got back home. Meelyn, Mom and I worked together through the rigors of breast-feeding, which none of the three of us had ever done before. We also learned about baby washing and nap time and the pleasure of rocking a baby while reading a book.

"Quit hogging the baby," we'd complain to each other, pouring glasses of iced tea and getting out more cookies.

Aisling was born in the summer, so no personal days were involved. But my mother came to help me out, knowing that I was in a very precarious mental state due to a crushing post-partum depression. Aisling had terrible colic, probably due to some food allergy that I never was able to identify because I simply didn't know then what I know now. At any rate, she was a really difficult newborn, not sleeping, wanting to be fed every two hours, crying for hours and hours on end.

Mom came over during those really bad days and was cheerful for Meelyn, rocking the inconsolable Aisling while gently and wisely pushing me into the shower, into real clothes instead of pajamas, into makeup and an actual hairstyle. I was so emotionally fragile that it was a huge effort just to get into her car while she drove us around the summer countryside during one of Aisling's quiet moments. It was bad enough that the idea of going through McDonald's drive-thru for a Coke could make me dissolve into helpless tears and the idea of going to someplace like Wal-Mart to buy some toothpaste paralyzed me in fear.

But my mom just drove along, patiently patting my hand and encouraging me to sing with her and Meelyn, "If all the raindrops were lemon drops and gumdrops, oh, what a rain that would be..."

I sang, sort of. She prayed for me when I couldn't sing, out loud so that I could absorb the words, "Jesus, be with Shelley. Help her during this hard time. You said that we could give You our burdens...please help Shelley carry hers. Restore her, Lord Jesus. You are the shelter in a time of storm."

One day when Aisling was a couple of months old, it was really bad. She had been crying for hours and I had fed and soothed and rocked and walked and sung until I was exhausted, knowing that her schedule was to cry every day from 1:00 until about 5:00, with nothing to be done for it. At some point, I realized that I needed to put her down. I needed to put her down. Meelyn was fast asleep at her nap, safe in her own room, but I was there with the baby and something terrible seemed to be happening to me.

I fearfully carried Aisling to her nursery and laid her gently in her crib, as if she were made of fine china. She continued screaming, so I backed out of the room, closing the door and walking to the living room to sit down and read.

The book I was reading was All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot, a book I always turn to when I'm feeling sad and worried because it is so real and so funny and so lighthearted. But this day, it wasn't having its usual effect. I sat with it unopened on my lap, listening to Aisling scream, wondering why she wouldn't stop crying, why she hated me so much, why God had given me this beautiful baby that I couldn't understand. I looked down and noticed, to my horror, that I had unconsciously been destroying my book - it was ripped to shreds, pieces of pages floating down around my ankles and littering the floor like confetti in the parade of the damned.

I knew I was in a dangerous place.

The phone was right next to me and I picked it up and punched in my parents' number, my hands trembling so hard I could scarcely hold it. Mom answered with a bright "Hello!" on the second or third ring, but my voice didn't want to work.

"Mom?" I finally managed, quavering. "Aisling, she won't stop crying. And I...I can't....She just won't stop crying. I'm...." and then I started crying, horrible sobs that tore through me, guilt weighing me down. I was a bad mother, maybe even evil. My baby hated me. And God help me, right then I hated her, too. What kind of person feels that way about a little baby?

"Honey," Mom said in her kind, matter-of-fact voice, as lightly and pleasantly as if I'd just told her I'd won the Nobel Peace Prize, "I want you to just hang up the telephone now and go over and lie down on the couch. Just lie down there and say the name of Jesus, over and over. Close your eyes, now. Just rest. I'll be there in ten minutes."

She came over and somehow, that whole nightmare day turned around. I know it was largely through the power of God, His great might and ineffable comfort expressed through one mother to another. As always, she was able to make everything okay and handed me tissues as I wept, telling me quietly that she understood, that this was just colic and it would end, just like my crazy hormones would sort themselves out. Things would be normal again and the baby didn't hate me, and mercy, what silly nonsense was this? Hating the baby? No, you don't hate the baby, she said, looking at me with her sweet blue eyes. Of course you don't hate the baby. You hate the crying, the colic. Who wouldn't?

I was a good mother, she assured me. Some women have a bad patch after their babies are born -- she'd had a rough go of it after my brother, Pat, had been born, she said. And some babies have colic. It's awful, for the baby and the baby's parents. But I was doing everything right. I was snuggling her and singing little songs while I nursed her; pushing her in the stroller around the block to get some fresh air, changing her diapers and giving her Mylicon drops for gas, bathing her in her little tub...there was no end to what a wonderful mother I was to this baby, my mother explained. Right now she wasn't so likeable, but she'd grow out of it, I'd see.

And I did. From that time on, with my mother's prayers and good common sense to back me up, I was better. Every day got better. Aisling still screamed her head off on a daily basis, but following my mother's advice, when it got to be too much and I felt tense inside, I'd take her to her nursery, cover her with a light blanket, turn on the Baby Mozart cassette and leave, gently shutting the door behind me. There were no more shredded books. Aisling continued to gain weight and started smiling, then laughing.

I started smiling and laughing.

We both stopped crying.

Because of God and His loving care for us, yes. But also because of my mother.

My beautiful, funny, amazing mother. Happy Mother's Day.

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